Written by Yeon Jung Yu.

An estimated four to ten million women are currently working in China’s sex trade. The majority of these women are internal migrants from impoverished families. Beginning with economic reforms put in place in the late 1970s, China has seen a dramatic boom in its market economy. The resulting rural-urban inequalities that have emerged over the last several decades have caused an influx of rural migrants into urban areas – a migration that could well be the largest labor flow in human history. Approximately 120 to 250 million peasants to move from China’s countryside into its cities in search of work; it is this population that contains the large number of migrant women who become sex workers (xiaojie).

Over two years, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Hainan province (Haikou) primarily, but also in Beijing and Shanghai. As a cultural and medical anthropologist, I wanted to understand the daily lives of Chinese women in the sex trade. Since people’s behaviors and beliefs both resemble and are influenced by those with whom they associate, mapping social networks leads to an understanding of important traits of a community. In particular, I wondered: Given their participation in this stigmatised form of work, what do their social networks look like? Are the women isolated and marginalised? What social forces shape the women’s network patterns?

The women participate in the sex trade on a daily basis. These women typically work at multiple sex venues (e.g., brothels, massage parlors, Karaoke TV bars, etc.) and/or through various work modes (e.g., via madams, mistress, escorts, etc.), often simultaneously. Most of these (lower-income) women in the sex trade have flexible work schedules, do not have a formal contract, and pay “madams” a commission. My close informants had several regular clients as well as up to 10 temporary clients on a single working day, depending on the season and what they referred to as “luck.” The women usually had urban boyfriends who they spent time with for companionship rather than money. Some of the women were married, but most were separated or divorced. On average, the women worked about 20 days per month (with irregular schedules), spending rest days off socializing, traveling, and visiting each other’s homes; some would seasonably return home to help with farming.

The majority of the women I interacted with were daughters of farmers, ranging from elementary school dropouts to junior high school graduates. Despite their limited education, the women made a substantial amount of money, averaging incomes two to three times more than what a new college graduate might make in the region. In this way, sex work in China is not “survival sex.” Yet, they live with a ceaseless risk of pregnancy, physical and verbal abuses, and arrest. When forced to stop working—for example, if they needed an abortion or STI treatments – they frequently resorted to living with close colleagues (jiemei or “sisters”) in their tiny rented rooms or workplaces.

When I asked about their reasons for joining the sex industry – or why they continue to work in it – the women usually claimed that it was the only way to fulfill their gendered, moral obligation to support their families. These women frequently sent substantial amounts of money home so that loved ones could build new houses, buy material goods, meet their living costs, and put money toward siblings’ education. Because of the critical support and social stigma against sex work, most of the women’s family members turned a blind eye and did not ask about the source of income. The majority of the women I met were constantly pressured by their family members to provide continuous and substantial financial support.

Three Patterns of Female Sex Workers’ Social Networks

Chinese women in the sex trade not only maintain their home networks but also tend to keep their rural hometown life and city life separate. My data show three distinctive patterns of the women’s networks: (1) The first pattern is the “dense network” (20% of participants), in which people in their urban work networks know those in their hometown. (2) The second pattern, “the moderate network” (23% of participants) shows a relative or home-villager, also working in the sex trade, that connects the family and work networks. (3) Finally, in a “loose network” (57% of participants), urban and rural networks are kept completely separated.

The network patterns demonstrate that the women in the sex trade are well aware that more connections between their rural and urban associates brings a risk for more intense gossip and scrutiny about their profession, and they knowingly act to mitigate any such scenario from occurring. Nearly every woman I interviewed explained that she had deliberately made a situational call on whether to introduce certain people to each other or not. Additionally, the women maintained smaller networks, presumably allowing easier management.

Social Forces Shaping Female Sex Workers’ Networks: Stigma, Age, and Competition

Several social forces govern the network patterns of the women. (1) First, the strong stigma against sex work forces the women to find venues far from their hometowns, enabling them to hide their job identities from fiancés, kin, and other villagers. (2) Second, as a woman in the sex trade ages and gains more experience in the unpredictable industry, she tends to grow more skeptical as social betrayals of various kinds are witnessed. As a result, in managing networks, older women tend to withdraw socially. (3) Third, sex work is a competitive profession. Many participants explained that they avoided introducing their most valuable clients to other sex workers, fearing that colleagues would steal these profitable sources of income. Furthermore, in order to maintain both their own profitability and harmonious relationships, the women did not introduce certain madams to other madams.

Through my ethnographic fieldwork, I’ve learned that the women actively manage their networks in order to mitigate negative consequences of their engaging in stigmatised activities. Well aware of the significance of managing their networks, they actively search for ways to establish control. Their expressed goal in doing so is avoiding any possible flow of sensitive information that is likely to hamper them from participating in the socially desirable life cycles of Chinese women such as marriage and reproduction. These seemingly marginalised women are not excluded from the larger society – they are woven into it socially and economically. Much of their network management is about maintaining that participation as a part of the “general population.”

The content of this article were originally published in “In-Transitivity: Network Patterns of Female Sex Workers in China” and “The Moral Code of Chinese Sex Workers”).

Yeon Jung Yu is a social and medical anthropologist with a background in public health, women’s and gender studies, and East Asian studies. Image Credit: CC by Chris/Flickr.